On Tuesday morning, about 30 workers at a George's poultry plant in Springdale staged a walkout to protest their working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The family-owned company, one of the 10 biggest poultry producers in the U.S., is headquartered in Springdale. It also operates processing plants in Virginia and Missouri as well as a prepared foods division in Tennessee, with more than 4,800 employees across all locations. The plant that workers walked out of is one of the company's three plants in Springdale and is not unionized.
The Springdale walkout, which the workers plan to continue until their demands are met, was the first labor action of its kind by poultry workers in the state, said Magaly Licolli, the leader of Venceremos, a workers' justice organization based in Northwest Arkansas. It's significant that it happened in Springdale, one of the country's largest poultry-producing cities and home to the corporate headquarters of Tyson, the country's largest chicken producer. While Arkansas historically has one of the lowest levels of union participation in the country, a larger percentage of the state's workforce has become unionized in recent years.
The workers told Facing South that the walkout was prompted by management's decision to end staggered shifts, which forced workers entering the plant for their shift into narrow hallways with workers who were leaving. A spokesperson for George's did not respond to specific questions about how they planned to address workers’ concerns, instead directing Facing South to the company's website.
"In the afternoon shift, [social distancing is] much worse because there are significantly more people. That hallway is far too small for all of us to fit in it," Juana, a worker who debones chicken at the plant, told Facing South in Spanish. She asked to be identified by a pseudonym because she and other protesting workers are worried about retaliation.
The majority of the striking workers are on the debone line, where they use knives and scissors to remove bones from poultry at a breakneck speed that workers say has increased in recent months despite the ongoing pandemic. In April, George's received a line speed waiver for the facility, meaning processing lines can run as fast as 175 birds per minute. Many workers on the line make $12 an hour. Some make less.
Deboning and other processing poultry tasks are hazardous in ordinary times, with workers at risk for repetitive stress injuries, back and shoulder problems, and cuts. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Arkansas's poultry industry has been the site of many outbreaks because of crowded conditions inside the plants, as Facing South has reported. Nationwide, more than 50,000 meatpacking workers have contracted the disease and at least 255 have died, according to an ongoing database maintained by Leah Douglas at the Food and Environment Reporting Network. This includes hundreds of confirmed COVID-19 cases in George's Arkansas plants.
Facing South spoke with 10 workers who walked out on Tuesday. They said they believed the majority of the workers near them on the processing line tested positive for COVID-19 at some point. However, the George's plant is not included on the Arkansas Department of Health's most recent report on COVID-19 in poultry facilities, provided to Facing South, which lists companies that have five or more active cases.
While the walkout was precipitated by management's decision to end staggered shifts, workers have other grievances with the way George's has responded to the pandemic. Early on, the company took several weeks to provide workers with masks or to require they be worn. Workers also reported over the summer that the company failed to inform them when fellow line workers tested positive for the virus, and they say it hasn't paid workers for time they took off while waiting to be tested.
Tibiej Anjain, one of the many Marshallese immigrant residents of Springdale who works in the industry, started a job as a deboner at George's seven months ago. He transferred from another poultry plant in Arkansas to be closer to his four children and two grandchildren, he told Facing South. To make the move, he took a pay cut of more than $3 an hour. His hourly pay of $15 at his previous job was enough to make ends meet, he said — enough to pay rent, water and electricity bills. But at George's, where he says he made $11.75 an hour until getting a 25-cent raise last week, it's almost impossible to pay all of his bills and still provide adequate clothing for his children and grandchildren.
"Everything is wrong for my family," Anjain said. "They need to get us more money."
Management did not address the striking workers until 11:15 a.m., more than two hours after the walkout began, with human resources representatives telling them that they needed to come back to work or go home. The company representatives told workers they would address their concerns "one-on-one." But workers were unmoved and yelled, "We won't leave until you meet our demands!" They were supported by about a dozen onlookers chanting "Sí se puede" — the historic United Farmworkers slogan that translates to "Yes we can" — from a nearby grocery store parking lot.
The striking workers are bracing for retaliation of some sort. Some say they expect to lose their hourly COVID-19 bonuses, which workers told Facing South the company has used as leverage before. "They say that they will not retaliate, but they definitely do it," Juana said. "They instill fear in a few in order to stop the rest."
The National Labor Relations Act provides protections for workers engaging in what's called "protected concerted activity," which the National Labor Relations Board has said includes walkouts in some circumstances. But employers don't always follow the law.
"We've often seen employers retaliate against workers trying to improve working conditions," Kevin de Liban, a staff attorney at Legal Aid of Arkansas, which provides free legal services to low-income individuals, told Facing South. "If workers face retaliation, they can call us."
The workers who walked out on Tuesday said they are determined to make management hear them — for the sake of themselves, their families and their coworkers. A worker who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation said in Spanish, "This will end when they come talk to us."